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Republicans, Democrats jockey on earmark reform

House Democrats consider an ethics board, and Republicans adopt reform standards.

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"Republicans could meet President Bush's challenge to cut earmarks in half on their own, if they stopped earmarking," says John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, a leading opponent of earmarks.

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Senator McCain unveiled ads in New Hampshire and South Carolina attacking Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, then the Democratic front-runner, for sponsoring a $1 million earmark for the so-called hippie museum in Bethel, N.Y.

New disclosure requirements on earmarks are making it easier for public interest groups – and campaign opponents – to identify members of Congress who sponsor earmarks that appear linked to campaign contributors.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R) of Mississippi, who was appointed to replace resigning Sen. Trent Lott last month, already faces criticism over a $6 million earmark he obtained for a defense contractor whose executives helped finance his last campaign for the House. Senator Wicker says that his decision to support the project was not influenced by the contributions.

"It's an interesting new development that more candidates are using the questionable pork-barrel politics of opponents against them," says Ed Frank, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which opposes earmarking. "There's a political downside to securing pork now – and it's a significant shift from even a year ago."

The higher level of scrutiny for earmarks is also extending to presidential earmarks. In a Feb. 6 letter to Republican leader Boehner, Speaker Pelosi said that Democrats "agree with you that the large number of presidential earmarks deserve the same scrutiny and restraint."

Presidential earmarks are harder to define than congressional ones, but are potentially much more extensive, critics say. "If only 10 percent of the noncompetitive contracts were the subject of political influence, that makes this a much bigger issue than all the congressional earmarks combined," says Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

While aides on both sides of the aisle say it is unlikely that Congress will complete spending bills for FY 2009 in this session, the debate is expected to highlight earmarks as never before.

"I guarantee that this year there will be many more amendments that come to the floor on both Democratic and Republican earmarks," says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, a high-profile opponent of earmarks in the House.